When Liberals Attack!

Compared to the other two parties, the Liberal Democrats are remarkably united in our philosophy. Even if most members cast it vaguely in terms of ‘Freedom’ and ‘Fairness’ rather than paying attention to deep philosophical debate, there aren’t yawning chasms in the party. Perhaps because of this, perhaps because Liberalism doesn’t provide set solutions in the form of any particular social or (despite Meeting the Challenge) economic analysis, and perhaps because Liberals just like that sort of thing, we’re also much more likely to have open debates. It’s just that, when we do, they tend not to be characterised by the sort of mudslinging, vitriol and acrimony seen when rows break out of the pressure-cookers that are the other two parties.

So that’s one of the Lib Dem paradoxes. We’re always arguing with each other, but it rarely leaves many dead. You even – gasp – frequently get people going into a debate not knowing which way they’ll vote, listening to the debate, and voting because the arguments have persuaded them. Even more extraordinarily, their votes often make the difference at a Lib Dem Conference, while senior policymakers chew their knuckles at the thought of some wacky amendment coming in to stop all the figures adding up.

There are some issues, however, on which Liberal Democrats can almost be relied upon to have a row – not necessarily the most important issues, but those in which our values collide with each other. So, predictably, there’s going to be heated debate on tax, already this site’s hottest issue, and on why particular groups are under-represented among our MPs and what we can do about it. While normally we all have an idea of the rough direction in which to go, if not necessarily about the most practical route to take, sometimes freedom and fairness strike sparks off each other. Another source of friction is when those in the party whose first instinct is to stop nasty things in a cuddly way, even if it’s just for people’s own good, irritate the rather spikier Liberals who follow the On Liberty instincts of John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor that everyone should be allowed to do whatever they want, as long as they don’t hurt others (the cause of arguments on, say, smoking, boxing or porn). You might sum up that approach as based on informed consent, and it’s usually a pretty coherent model.

What happens, though, in situations where informed consent can’t apply?

Limits of Liberalism?

“It seems to me there are three big issues on which Liberals lack an instinctive compass…” 

It seems to me there are three big issues on which Liberals lack an instinctive compass, and they’re all situations where it’s impossible for all those concerned to give informed consent: animals, children and international law. I remember coming up with these in discussion during the writing process on the party’s philosophy paper ‘It’s About Freedom’. Its chair, Alan Beith, agreed that these were issues on which Liberals might well not have easy answers, and while I thought that was a good reason to raise them, he – perhaps wisely – thought the opposite was true! But if you want a reason for the party often saying contradictory things on animal welfare and hunting, that’ll be why, as Liberals argue either that people should have the right to do things that offend others, or that animals should be protected as they’re not able to consent. Or look at statements fired off in all directions on childhood obesity, parental choice or children’s rights, or Jonathan Calder’s writings on the dangers of the state thinking it can raise children better than parents; children, again, aren’t mature and informed enough to give consent on a raft of issues, so who’s best to look out for their interests?

International Law

If you’re wondering what all this has to do with rows at this year’s Conference, then look no further than the policy paper on ‘Britain’s Global Responsibilities: the International Rule of Law’. Now, if the world was made up of a confederation of liberal democracies, we’d still have plenty to argue about – just as we debate what laws are best for Britain, we could talk ‘til our tongues were tired over what the best laws would be across the international system. And, unlike many in other parties, Liberal Democrats would instinctively like such a framework of international law. The trouble is, how to get there? And, most importantly, what do we do in the meantime? While most of the proposals in the paper are serious, considered and sensible, without an established mechanism for real international consent, the more controversial issues could mean serious ructions.

When ‘international law’ is a weak skeleton made complicated by the struggling UN, multi- and bilateral treaties, the fact that many countries aren’t democratic and their people can’t be regarded as having consented to whatever agreements have been squeezed out of their rulers, what practical steps should be taken is a tricky question. Listen, for example, to the low-level but serious arguments among international lawyers a fortnight ago, when the murderous Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda finally agreed a ceasefire deal, but on condition of amnesty. Is it worth that to stop the killings and other atrocities? Or should their leaders be tried at the Hague to stop future brutal warlords thinking they’ll be able to get away with it, too? With international institutions are too weak to make the decision and make it stick, too many international decisions are a question of perspective.

Here’s where a row might just come in. With a handful of notable exceptions, the party was united in its opposition to the War in Iraq; ‘it was illegal’ is our main refrain, but it was also supported by very few countries and looked to most like naked American adventurism, allied to practical considerations that in many ways it would make the situation worse (and who believes Mr Bush’s claims that the world is now a safer place?). But had it been a legal invasion, sanctioned by the UN, the party would have had far greater trouble keeping up a united front, and in the absence of overwhelming support from and within Muslim countries, we’d have been seriously split. The absolutely pacifist element in the party is small, but there are potentially huge differences between those who would intervene across the world to enforce human rights, those who see that as imperialism, and those who see it as impractical.

Perhaps the most explosive issue is bound to be what we’d do if faced with ‘another Saddam Hussein’. The executive summary of ‘Britain’s Global Responsibilities’ sets out criteria for military intervention, but unlike the summaries for many papers, it raises rather more questions than the paper can happily answer. While the paper sets out firmly why the invasion of Iraq was wrong, these criteria have to squirm around a bit to sound different from the UK and US governments while still permitting intervention in horrific cases. If strong arguments have been made to the Security Council and peaceful means have been attempted to stop human rights abuses, in exceptional cases if the Security Council has failed to act, the paper tries to explain… The key difference is that it calls for wide support, but using the words “demonstrably legitimate” to make a case for intervention without UN backing, but where there’s such a weak framework of international law and most of it revolves around the Security Council or the inviolability of nation states themselves, what exactly would the source of this ‘legitimacy’ be? I suspect that, without the key Liberal concept of the rule of law, the real answer is necessarily arbitrary, though to a Liberal, an arbitrary rule is never going to be a satisfactory one: ‘we know it when we see it’.

Will anyone know a possible row when they see it? It’s on the last morning of Conference, and as Mr Fenwick argued in one of the first articles on this very site, perhaps they’ll all be too hung over emotionally drained by the hard work and vigorous intellectual stimuli of Conference to notice. On the other hand, it’s immediately before the Leader’s Speech, so the hall will be packed. If any of the speakers fall off the perilous line of compromise they’ll have to tread to make it all seem straightforward, the Conference could suddenly stir into an unexpected but blazing row. We generally agree on not liking the way the world works now; we generally agree on how we’d like international law to work in an ideal world. On what to do along the way, even Mill and Taylor were a bit iffy.

Alex blogs regularly at http://loveandliberty.blogspot.com

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  • Greg Simpson 15th Sep '06 - 10:57am

    Interesting post Alex,

    Unfortuately, the International Law paper attracted only a couple of amendments from reps or local parties and none of these addressed the points you make. I hope we have an interesting debate but the lack of proposed amendments mean that if a row is in the offing all voting reps can do is reject the paper as a whole or refer it back. Neither option is really desireable as there is a lot of good policy in this paper which is timely and gives us a strong platform.

    Similarly we had very few proposals for emergency motions and for urgent issues.

    It may be that the controversy over the Tax paper has attracted all the attention of reps and local parties so that other parts of the agenda have been ignored, but I certainly hope this is not a trend that continues.


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  • By The LDV Friday Five: 9 July 2010 on Fri 9th July 2010 at 9:02 am.

    […] Clegg unveils 100-day plan to abolish Lords and reform voting by The Voice, May 2009 2. When Liberals Attack! by Alex Wilcock, September 2006 3. Should we become a nation of contented losers? by James Graham, […]

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