What it is to be a Liberal

“I really mean it when I say that I’m not sure I fully understand politics right now, which is an odd thing to say when I’ve spent my life in it.” So said Tony Blair in a recent interview. A bunch of mavericks and challengers everywhere have turned politics on its head. Why are they being so successful?

What ordinary people everywhere can see and feel in their bones and their everyday lives is that our current political and economic system is unsustainable. Yet the established parties seem to be offering them just more of the same – with the odd little tweak here and there. The electorate seems hungry for something else.

What the mainstream has lost is the ability to re-imagine the world. Mavericks like Trump and others have stepped into that space. We may feel that the new world they imagine is dystopic at best, horrifying at worst – and unacheivable. But more and more of the electorate seems be leaning towards taking a punt on their vision.

After so many years in power, Blair also seems to have forgotten the key to his own early success. He too, when first elected, presented – and embodied – a vision. A vision of a fresh start. A modern, forward looking Britain that was young in spirit and could break out of tired right vs left arguments to find a Third Way. Just like Margaret Thatcher before him had offered people a vision of a post-imperial Britain that could be effective, productive and great again after a disastrous, if well-meaning, Labour administration that culminated in the winter of discontent.

But, well before those times, the greatest visionaries were liberals. Who could have imagined, in the 18th and early 19th centuries, that the Western world could be transformed from closed, colonialist economies based on the absolute power of monarchs and the church to the open liberal democracies we have today. Only liberals were capable of imagining that. And imagine how dystopic and horrifying such a future looked to the Establishment of the time. But liberals achieved it – against all odds and in the face of huge and often violent resistance.

As we re-build the party from its current parlous state, there will be the temptation to believe that what we have to do is to do what we’ve always done – but do it that much better. Better polling, better targeting, more campaigning with more feet on the ground, better use of social media and so forth. That is not what made liberals Liberals. Liberals believed that a fundamentally different world – a better world – was imaginable and achievable. Today we need that same belief. We need to re-discover the ability to imagine what that new world might look like and to galvanise the electorate behind such a new vision.

It’s a tall order. It will take a lot of sustained work and the courage to step well out of our comfort zones. But that’s what it means to be a liberal.

* Joe Zammit-Lucia is a co-founder and trustee of the think tank radix.org.uk and a Lib Dem member

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  • There was not a great feeling of radical change in 1979. People had tired of the drift in the last days of the Labour government. Don’t forget Margaret Thatcher was a very poor Leader of the Opposition.
    The real new vision started with SDP and Alliance but unfortunately that became drowned out by the Falklands war.

  • Simon McGrath 28th Feb '16 - 11:21am

    “What ordinary people everywhere can see and feel in their bones and their everyday lives is that our current political and economic system is unsustainable. Yet the established parties seem to be offering them just more of the same – with the odd little tweak here and there. The electorate seems hungry for something else.”

    Electing a Tory Government seems an odd way of the voters showing they were ” hungry for something else”

  • Is Liberal the right descriptor at all, Internationalist appears to be the principal driver.
    To be liberal means you respect other peoples behaviour and opinions that are different to your own, if that is the case how do you square the nanny state obsession with constantly trying to interfere in the minutiae of peoples lives.


  • You’re right that the success of people like corbyn, trump and even sanders and farage is that people are rejecting the mainstream. Politics is no longer working for lots of people.

    The lib dems used to get the anti status quo voters (or a lot of them) but then the went into government with the tories and fought the election promising to be middle way between labour and the tories which is as status quo as it gets.

    Where this will end up I’ve no idea but something needs to change. I hope Jeremy corbyn can offer the country a better vision but I doubt it

  • Lorenzo Cherin 28th Feb '16 - 4:00pm

    Joe and co

    A good start with regard to a response to your thought provoking article, is , for me, to instinctively recoil from the often used phrase “ordinary people, ” other than as a reference to Robert Redford’s terrific movie of the same title ! What it is to be a Liberal is to unleash human potential, to find , pursue, nurture , the extraordinary , within , beside and indeed , instead of ,the seemingly ordinary !

    Socialism , in it’s statist and discredited form , labours under the illusion that ordinary is the norm , bring down the top and elevate the bottom and that is , basically , it .No to individuality, to difference, or ambition.A stereotype , but it resembles the past failures of the tendency.

    Conservatism is judgemental.It recognises it’s version of the extraordinary , and , too often judges it in monetary terms, measuring success accordingly, and only equating the extraordinary with the same apparently successful few .It preserves as long as it can preserve it’s own , and their own take , literally , on things.

    Liberalism offers the way forward precisely because it knows there is no one way , but many paths , winding , and leading to others ,the destination and journey interlinked, the traveller both alone and amongst friends , the terrain , rough , the Liberal ,up for it. Go at your own pace,know where you are going, yet knowing there are many possibilities,and wonderful ones !

  • The Liberals need to rediscover their role as the creators of new ideas.

  • Eddie Sammon 28th Feb '16 - 11:32pm

    We probably do need radical change if we are to break out of our current single figure ratings.

    Good article. The only thing I’d like to add is that sometimes liberal revolutionaries were really not very liberal at all. Balancing freedoms is what liberalism is about and when violence is involved, such as in war and revolution, people better make sure they get it right.

  • I am a founder member of the lib dems. I am and will remain, a social democrat. I am happy in a party which embraces exemplary liberal social democrats such as Shirley Williams. I have no time for economic liberalism. I worry when the concept of “the State” seems to reflect 1984 in liberal minds. The current Osborne led emasculation of the state hits those in need of its protection and support.

  • Joe – thanks for a thought provoking article.

    I recognise the feeling of relief and excitement when Blair was first voted in. It did feel like a new beginning and it was the first and only time I voted Labour.

    Now there is a bleakness in politics and an anger amongst the electorate. Time and time again, downright lies or at best half-truths are revealed eg. Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction. The public no longer trust politicians to honestly present ‘facts’ without ‘spin’. Time and time again, when asked how they will vote in the EU referendum, people say they want to be better informed before making up their minds.

    I would like to know far more about the financial implications of remaining in the EU. How much does the UK pay the EU for the privilege of being a member of the club? How does the UK benefit financially? What do we get back? Do we get all we are entitled to? But can we trust any political party to give us reliable, accurate information?

  • With the utmost respect, I am still waiting for a point-by-point rebuttal at anyone’s convenience: http://www.ukip.org/busting_the_eu_myths – thank you, indeed.

  • One of the great Liberal moves of the 19th century was public money for infrastructure because private sector was not providing. I think we may be back there.

    The last two comments are in danger of going off-topic, about the EU, but I share this in case it helps http://infacts.org/ That list of UKIP myths is fairly easy to rebut but not on this thread.

  • Graham Jones 29th Feb '16 - 11:02am

    The liberal vision has always been more about ideas of freedom and opportunity than statistics on their own – and for me the European Union is part of that vision. Measuring its benefits only in economic terms masks those values which resist quantification. If the march to freedom is about removing barriers, the barriers of nationality are among the great inhibitors of individual capacity and the human spirit.

    Those wanting the UK to leave the EU see the Union as itself a barrier, but for me it’s not a binary issue. I want the UK to be a global player with a global, open worldview. I don’t see that as incompatible with taking part in the European project of uniting in the liberation of our individual capacities to improve our lot and that of our fellows.

    Indeed, the coming together of those who share the inheritance or adoption of the European liberal spirit is a necessary part of the wider liberal aim of global cooperation, peace and justice. Cutting adrift from the former – attractive though it may seem to replace a common rule-book with one which privileges national borders – undermines our ability to achieve the latter.

  • @Graham – with the utmost respect, do you agree that the EU is a political union that can overrule our parliament – do you think that is a positive?

  • “As a minister I’ve seen hundreds of new EU rules cross my desk, none of which were requested by the UK Parliament, none of which I or any other British politician could alter in any way and none of which made us freer, richer or fairer.” – http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2016/02/michael-gove-why-im-backing-leave/

  • Peter Watson 29th Feb '16 - 11:46am

    @Simon McGrath “Electing a Tory Government seems an odd way of the voters showing they were ” hungry for something else””
    I thought the official party line about the Coalition years was that a Tory government was “something else”.

  • Graham Jones; you are so right. And Philip- if you can’t see that practically everything said on the UKIP – “busting” site is wrong… I think you may be a “Outer”.
    Liberalism -to me, has always been in front when it comes to original progressive ideas. The trouble seems to be; with such as PR or LVT, the media seems to be a totally two party monopoly. I stopped reading daily papers 25yrs ago when I realised they are there to control the – mainly ignorant- public with trivia, rubbish and propaganda.
    Even if we think-up the best ideas ever; no one will ever hear about it.
    That is the problem!

  • Peter Watson 29th Feb '16 - 12:04pm

    “The electorate seems hungry for something else.”
    In April-May 2010, the Lib Dems (and Nick Clegg in particular) did seem to be offering something else. The promise of a “new kind of politics” felt sincere and real.
    I can’t help but feel that in the UK, disappointment in the Lib Dems and the party’s subsequent decline has contributed greatly to that hunger, and people are looking to satisfy it with Corbyn’s brand of Labour, the SNP, and even UKIP. But equally, the conservative, establishment reaction against this bolsters the Tories (and possibly New Labour). So where does this leave the Lib Dems?

  • Simon Banks 7th Mar '16 - 6:10pm

    The Tories won on fear. The valid point is that this could only have been overcome with a convincing and consistent vision, which was in fact offered by neither Labour nor us. In Scotland, though, a vision, however misleading, was offered in a consistent way.

    The politics of hope has become more difficult, though, because there is so much fear and confusion around. All over Europe and in the USA, in Israel, even to an extent in India and Australia, certainly where Muslim extremism is growing, people find the world threatening and confusing, and react by embracing populist extremism which offers simple solutions but no real improvement. This is a similar atmosphere to that which engendered Fascism.

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