Why be a Liberal Democrat?

My family had a century of Labour Party membership between us. I left after three decades, coming home, intellectually, emotionally and ideologically, by joining the Liberal Democratic Party.

After one year’s membership, as a candidate in a marginal ward, and part of the campaign to re-elect our popular Mayor, I am writing this in ancient Rome. A timely reminder that the name, “potholes” dates from when the Anglo Saxons dug up the clay from Roman roads to make cookware and that the history of ideas matters. In particular that England has been divorcing Europe since Henry VIII. In this context, why be a Liberal Democrat?

The first reason is the need to keep the ideas of Liberalism and Democracy alive. Our broken politics and failing democracy make this challenging. But the twentieth century taught us that the twin evils of totalitarian communism and nationalism will lead to barbarism every time that the freedom, tolerance and rule of law inherent in Liberal Democracy are abandoned. The works of Sir Karl Raymond Popper illustrate why.

In The Poverty of Historicism and The Open Society And Its Enemies, Popper shows us that when the pseudo-scientific certainty of authoritarian dictatorship defeats liberalism and social democracy, barbarism is inevitable. He also elucidated the ultimate liberal paradox: freedom of thought and speech is sacrosanct but there must be limits on the actions of the enemies of freedom from the left and right.

Second, we are the true children of the enlightenment. Rational, evidence-based policy is already abundant. Taken together with the philosophy above and coupled with a renewal and extension of democracy will offer the best chance of a progressive hegemony in the twenty-first century.

Third, the things we take for granted: hard work, community, kindness, mutual tolerance and respect. These things are not accidents. They are the DNA of educated and informed citizens who believe in equality and society based on individual freedom. On every axis from libertarianism to authoritarian to free market to state control we are philosophically, ideologically and temperamentally moderate. From the twitching corpse of state socialism in England to the white supremacist nationalism of Russia and America we are threatened with a repetition of the gulag and the holocaust.

Fourth, only a belief in liberal market freedom balanced by the intervention of social objectives can deliver prosperity and ecology globally. While only international institutions can make humanity’s voice heard on a global scale, we must support such institutions regardless of the transient loyalties of our nation-state in the short term.

As the torch of liberal and social democracy passes to a new generation there is no guarantee who will win but capitulation by the forces of reason will make a repetition of the past a near certainty.

* Tim Caswell is a writer, lawyer and homelessness activist who joined the Liberal Democrats in 2018 after 34 years in the Labour party.

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9 Comments

  • Neil Sandison 27th Dec '18 - 12:52pm

    Very good Tim we have twin evils to defeat and we must pick up the gauntlet of a new and refreshed liberalism if we are to raise the electorates eyes to what is possible without sinking into the mire of nationalism or state control that imprisons the soul and stifles creativity.

  • It is an interesting challenge to be asked why be a Liberal Democrat. My answer would start with the idea that the answer should be concerned with the question, then what we might think other political ideas may or may not be.
    I will leave the idea that there is an identifiable group of citizens who are educated and informed in the nineteenth century where it belongs.
    My viewpoint is that we need an approach to the way we organise our society by which we treat each other with respect. That means that we must always look for ways of involving people in the evolution of our society. My starting point is the question how we organise our own party. How do we endure that the views of all are treated with respect? That we create a society where we jointly work to solve our joint problems.
    If we look at the world today we see that those of us lucky enough to live in the developed world are already using resources at such a rate as we have passed the point of no return. The challenge for humanity is how to organise themselves so that we start to manage the world so as to arrive at solutions to the problems that we face. At the moment we have not even started.
    So why be a Liberal Democrat? My approach has to be what political organisation is going to help us in organising our planet?

  • Sue Sutherland 28th Dec '18 - 4:07pm

    Neil I think the concept of the state can stifle creativity because it takes on an identity of its own, when, I think, for Lib Dems it’s just the executive arm of democracy. We think of community politics at local level but divide this from national politics when it would be so much easier for us if we thought of a national community. I’m slightly nervous about this as the Hungarian PM/ President has recently adopted this phrase with different ends in mind, but if we think of the needs of the national community then we can decide on what should be run by the community and what can be left to market forces with social objectives written in as Tim suggests.
    The most obvious question for me is the prison service. The national community is seeking to protect itself from those who would harm it, which is a basic requirement for its welfare. For me it then becomes a no brainer that the community must run this service to ensure that its’ requirements are met.
    It also helps in the moderate versus radical discussion that we have from time to time. We do not want extremism because this is usually defined as fascism or communism where one group has taken over the control of the rest of the members of the national community. We want to balance the needs of all members of that community so they aren’t imprisoned in any way but free to pursue their optimum achievement to the benefit of the community as a whole, as long as by doing others are unharmed.
    It also helps to explain our internationalist stance because, again, we are looking to improve the lives of all those who are damaged by extreme nationalism. For example the protection of the environment, which can only be achieved by working with other countries, must be seen as more important for all of us than immediate economic gain for one or two countries.
    Thank you very much Tim for choosing to join us and leave behind your inter generational loyalty. It must have been very difficult and I hope you find everything you need in the Lib Dems.

  • Peter Hirst 28th Dec '18 - 6:22pm

    One of the defining themes of our era is in the area of civil liberties. There is so much temptation to curtail these in the name of security, an easy life and pragmatism. We are the only Party that sees these as a fundamental part of being human. I include personal privacy as this is the freedom to act how you wish within the law. I see the other Parties doing little to defend them.

  • Jayne Mansfield 28th Dec '18 - 8:09pm

    ‘The things we take for granted, hard work, kindness, mutual tolerance and respect, These things are not accidents. They are in the DNA of educated and informed citizens who believe in equality and society based on individual freedom’ .

    A nice piece of purple prose which as a Romantic, I wish that I could believe. Perhaps you could provide evidence.

  • Peter Chambers 31st Dec '18 - 5:01pm

    +1 for name-check of Popper, “The Open Society And Its Enemies”.

    @Jayne. This is the Enlightenment. I suggest you start your reading with “Towards the Light: The Story of the Struggles for Liberty and Rights that Made the Modern West”, by A.C. Grayling. The basic thesis is that a free and cooperating demos tends to outperform kleptocracies, absolute monarchies, feudalism, and so on. It seems so on the evidence. It gets interesting, if you really believe this, when you consider how to relate to the “left out”.

    I would suggest signing up with your local party and going out to talk to some of them. Ditch scripts, just talk and listen, it is more fun anyway.

  • Jayne Mansfield 31st Dec '18 - 8:40pm

    @ Peter Chambers,

    I was amused when human traits were spoken of as part of the DNA of certain individuals who have reached a level of education given that science tells us that human nature is mutable. and that mutability is possible because of experience.

    Having mischievous fun is in my DNA I guess .

    Or perhaps working with tribal people, I learnt from experience that some of the poorest, most marginalised people in the world were more advanced when it came to hard work, collaboration, mutual support, kindness and acceptance than those who had, had the benefits of the Enlightenment bestowed on them.

    Rather than me going to talk and listen to members of my local party, why don’t you go to Rotherham Doncaster and Barnsley and offer Popper’ s critique of teleological historicism to the man and woman in the street then listen what they have to say? Now that is what I would call fun.

    The point I am trying to make, is that you claim not to be an elite, but when, for example, one looks at the educational attainment of those of all age groups who voted leave, you are a select elite to those who are strongly motivated by emotion. A dominant , and if I may say so, supercilious elite who have no understanding of matters beyond the cerebral.

    I don’t want a return to the dark ages, but I think that there needs to be critical self evaluation of the reasons why people no longer listen to ‘experts’.

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