Why it’s time for the Liberal Democrats to take back the mantle of freedom

The topic of freedom in politics is highly contested. For the Conservatives, in recent years,  this has centred around economic freedom. Is this still really relevant today?

Back in the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher’s programme of economic liberalisation saw an explosion in economic freedom – more people were able to purchase their own council houses and stock market novices became rich overnight following the countless moves to privatise various public utilities.

Despite regular musings by Conservative MPs that they remain the party of low taxes, personal freedom and individual responsibility,  the facts tell a different story. A recent poll by Redfield & Wilton Strategies found that only 14% of voters believed the Tories had a reputation for lowering taxes.

Personal freedom has also become a significant grey area for the Tories. The majority of the parliamentary party backed vaccine passports in 2021 – something that the Liberal Democrats firmly opposed, with Ed Davey labelling the scheme at the time ‘a grotesque misuse of government diktat’.

While the Covid-19 pandemic undoubtedly  required great vigilance and government intervention, any party that holds a belief in liberal values and is a carrier of the torch of freedom should understand the importance of not enforcing schemes on the populace that could be a precursor for revolt. Whilst vaccine passports were introduced, they remained deeply unpopular for their time in existence.

Any discussion about personal freedom would not be complete without the attack on the Human Rights Act by the government. Prior to its introduction in 1998, if an individual wanted to challenge a government act as unlawful, they would be required to invoke our ‘common law’ tradition of the rule of law. Essential rights were established on a case-by-case basis, regardless of the right being discussed.

With the passing of the HRA, the UK constitutionalised the common law – and gave more power to the individual to secure protections guaranteed by the state. No longer were people subject to the whims of the particular case. Human rights were now universal and guaranteed legal certainty.

The attack, and the ongoing push to repeal the Human Rights Act reflects a deep fissure in the Conservative Party. A party that lauds itself as a party of liberty and personal freedom is taking a scalpel to a law that guarantees equal protection under the law for all. A law which does not discriminate and is based on a case of universality is one of the defining legal pillars of personal freedom.

In the current highly open and flexible labour market, economic freedom may seem inevitable – but with a zero-hours contract market flourishing, the protections for individuals remain lacking. While zero-hours contracts can provide a greater level of flexibility for those who undertake them, their precariousness must be challenged.

At the last election, the Liberal Democrats called for a 20% higher minimum wage for people on zero-hour contracts ‘at times of normal demand’. For those who choose to work on zero-hour contracts, this can offer them a greater level of stability, security, and yes, freedom, with the knowledge that through earning more they are protected better against the challenges of day-to-day life.

The Thatcherite revolution in the 1980s created an idea in the Conservative Party that freedom – mostly economic freedom – is an ideology that is natural to them. While the market may have been liberalised, there is more to freedom than being able to own shares in privatised utilities.

Freedom is much more that. Freedom is the ability to have security in work regardless of the contract type, it is the ability to live without forms of omnipotent government coercion bringing personal restrictions to your life and it is the ability to be able to save for your future or build your own business without a government implementing high and burdensome taxes on you.

The Liberal Democrats is a party that has personal democracy at its heart. A voting system that is more reflective and representative of the voting habits of the public as a whole, strong and secure human rights for all and a belief that when it comes to your life, you know best – not your government.

The Conservative Party does not deserve to be regarded as the party of freedom. It is time for Liberal Democrats to take that back.

* Dan Willis is the Liberal Democrat candidate for the Bredbury and Woolley ward in Stockport for the 2023 local elections.

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23 Comments

  • Good article Dan.

    I think this brief article may be pertinent with its discussion of negative vs positive freedoms Social Liberalism vs. Social Democracy: What’s the Difference?
    The Liberal Democrats as a party combine both traditions of social democracy and social liberalism. As the linked article concludes “In many cases, their day-to-day policies will be indistinguishable from each other, though, depending on the situation.” However, how we get there may be by a clearly distinguishable route.

  • Tristan WARD 25th Feb '23 - 4:44pm

    Good article Dan. I think this is part of the “freedom to” and “freedom from” debate perhaps pioneered by Issiah Berlin?

    I do worry that many people think economic liberalism and social liberals are mutually exclusive. I hope and believe they are not. I fear that unless we find a way of successfully demonstrating they are compatible, and acknowledge the power of economic liberalism as part of the Liberal democratic package, to contribute to the delivery of wealth and freedom it will be far too hard to make progress against Labour and the Conservatives.

  • Keynes was able to combine economic liberalism and social liberalism. He wrote to Hayek in 1944 on his “grand” book, “The Road to Serfdom”, which argued that economic planning posed an insidious threat to freedom. “Morally and philosophically, I find myself”, the letter said, “in a deeply moved agreement.”
    Keynes was not in thrall to laissez-faire. He believed that doctrine was never necessarily true in principle and was no longer useful in practice. What the state should leave to individual initiative, and what it should shoulder itself, had to be decided on the merits of each case. He was with those liberals who believed in helping those who could not help themselves and accomplishing collectively what could not be achieved individually.
    Keynesian theory is ultimately agnostic about the size of government and leans heavily on the socialisation of investment i.e. principally public infrastructure. Keynes himself thought that a tax take of 23% of GDP is “about the limit of what is easily borne”. He worried more about the volume of spending than its composition. He was broadly happy to let market forces decide what was purchased, provided enough was. Done right, his policies only distorted spending that would otherwise not have existed at all.
    Keynesianism can certainly be carried to excess and stoke inflation. The planning he proposed was relatively modest. Keynes argued in his letter to Hayek that “moderate planning will be safe, if those implementing it share Hayek’s moral position. The ideal planners are reluctant ones.”

  • Mel Borthwaite 25th Feb '23 - 8:19pm

    @Joe Bourke
    A good summary of Keynes approach though I would point out that Keynes himself argued how the economy could be boosted by the Balanced Budget multiplier. This led to the suggestion that adopting this approach would gradually lead to an economy with higher taxes and higher levels of government expenditure.

  • Jenny Barnes 26th Feb '23 - 7:09am

    The Tories belief in law is that there shall be two nations under the law: one that the law binds but does not protect and one that the law protects but does not bind.
    The HRA works for all, hence their dislike of it.

  • Mel,

    Keynes was writing before the creation of the NHS and the post-war welfare state. Today we need levels of taxation and social security protection comparable with that of the Northern European states.
    The UK is facing a bleak economic future post-brexit with EU trade severely curtailed. Growth has trended lower since the 2008 financial crisis and is unlikely to return to the pre-crisis levels created by the financial services sector in a debt and credit boom.
    We have a very low level of investment and saving in this country, relative to other developed economies, and ultimately innovation and investment is the driver of rising living standards.
    Keynesian stimulus has its place in reviving animal spirits in recessions as do the automatic stabilisers of variable tax rates and unemployment benefits in smoothing out the peaks and troughs of the business cycle. However, in the longer term it is structural reform that is required in both the provision of housing and essential public services together with a more equitable tax and benefits system to enable the delivery of acceptable standards of living across the UK.

  • The French have got it right, theoretically, at least: Liberté, Egalité,Fraternité! There is always a difficult balance to be struck between the first two, only possible with general benevolence and fraternity.

  • The Tories only want freedom for money.

    Freedom for them to take the proceeds of Putin’s Oligarchs, selling anything of value stolen and extorted in Russia to legitimise the hot money in London for 10% commissions. without scrutiny from the EU Transparency Directive.

    Freedom to short sell the pound and export investments and profits to distant tax havens without scrutiny from the EU Savings Directive.

    The 2016 Brexit Referendum was used as a giant short selling exercise. Truss’s mini budget could have even been used for the same purpose. Again, some traders made 10’s of millions each.

  • James Fowler 26th Feb '23 - 9:39pm

    Good article, thank you.

  • Mick Taylor 27th Feb '23 - 5:53am

    In a world where there is a huge imbalance between income and wealth, freedom is of little value to those at the bottom who have nothing. Freedom to struggle and go hungry perhaps?
    That is where the role of the state is so crucial. Action to redistribute income and wealth is crucial to allow the exercise of freedom. The Gini coefficient needs to be significantly lowered by state action and that will, necessarily, mean higher taxes on those with the broadest backs.
    That is why social liberalism is so important. We can see the huge problems that arise when economic liberalism allows grotesque profits for formerly state owned utilities like power and water and the gradual destruction of other former state assets like transport, which make exercising freedom for many almost impossible and make tackling environmental problems doubly difficult.
    Yes, we must support freedom, but we must also tackle economic and social inequality. The balance between them is where the problems lie.

  • Daniel Willis,

    The privatisation of public utilities in the 1980s was opposed by the Liberal Party and the SDP. We must never become a party which advocates lower taxes and poorer public services and individual responsibility for providing social service (e.g. medical care and education). We must never become a party which advocates free markets rather than well-regulated markets.

    Joe Bourke,

    The article you gave a link to does not define social liberalism correctly.

    Keynes was not an economic liberal he rejected economic liberalism. Economic liberalism was implemented in the UK after Keynesian economic policies were rejected. You seem to be confusing communism with social liberalism. Social Liberalism like Keynes rejects laissez-faire, believes that what should not be left to individuals should be decided on its merits, that government should help those in difficulties, and in addition that well-regulated markets are a good thing.

    Structural reform seems to be making conditions worse for employees and better for the rich. There is a need for regional economic stimuli, but the party does not understand what this entails.

    Tristan Ward,

    As both economic liberalism and social liberalism want to run the economy in totally different ways they are mutually exclusive.

    Mel Borthwaite,

    The multiplier is normally applied to an economic stimulus. A balanced budget does not provide an economic stimulus.

  • Peter Martin 27th Feb '23 - 11:08am

    One freedom the LibDems might like to champion is the right of everyone to conduct their own defence in the way they choose when brought before the criminal courts.

    For example, if they are charged with a crime connected with their concern about the dangers of human induced climate change they should be allowed to explain themselves to the jury. The jury can then make a decision on its validity as they see fit.

    We might have all thought we already had this freedom. Apparently not.

    https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2023/feb/07/insulate-britain-activist-david-nixon-jailed-for-eight-weeks-for-contempt-of-court

  • Peter Martin 27th Feb '23 - 11:14am

    @ Mel,

    ” I would point out that Keynes himself argued how the economy could be boosted by the Balanced Budget multiplier. ”

    I’d be interested to see a reference to what he actually said on the topic.

    I suspect he was talking about a situation where external trade was balanced and there was no continual net drain of ££ out of the economy. They need to be replenished from somewhere to avoid the economy slumping into recession.

    To balance our trade we would need to be more interventionist than many of the contributors to LDV would like and ensure a continued lower valued pound.

  • Peter Martin 27th Feb ’23 – 11:14am:
    To balance our trade we would need to be more interventionist than many of the contributors to LDV would like and ensure a continued lower valued pound.

    To balance our trade we would need to be more free of the EU than many of the contributors to LDV would like to ensure continued opportunites to make our own trade agreements.

    ‘UK kickstarts work on new trade deal with Switzerland’ [April 2022]:
    https://www.gov.uk/government/news/uk-kickstarts-work-on-new-trade-deal-with-switzerland

    Switzerland is already an important partner for the UK, with bilateral trade worth nearly £35 billion annually. Many UK businesses benefit from tariff free trade on most goods under our existing trade agreement rolled over from the EU, but the current deal does not cover services, which account for over half of our bilateral relationship.

    ‘A Golden Trade Deal – The billion-pound opportunity for the Scotch Whisky Market’ [June 2022]:
    https://vclvintners.london/whisky-journal/the-blog/a-golden-trade-deal-the-billion-pound-opportunity-for-the-scotch-whisky-market/

    A recent trade deal between the UK and India could pave the way for a golden era for Scotch whisky exports, with tariffs on exports to India set to be slashed by up to 150%. This presents a huge opportunity for producers in Scotland, who currently export around £430 million worth of whisky to India each year.

  • Peter Martin 27th Feb '23 - 2:12pm

    @ Michael BG,

    “The multiplier is normally applied to an economic stimulus. A balanced budget does not provide an economic stimulus”

    It could do if external trade was balanced and if the tendency of the private sector was also to balance their saving and spending. The individual component of the three sectoral balances (govt, private domestic and overseas) would all be approximately zero, and exactly sum to zero.

    However, in an economy like the UK’s where we nearly always run an external trade deficit the government can only balance it books if the private sector takes over the task of doing the borrowing from govt. This can happen on rare occasions but is a sign that a credit boom has developed and got to be out of hand. This can all go pop and lead to a crash.

  • Michael BG,
    In simple terms Libdem policies are the output of social liberalism (or New Liberalism) while labour policies are that of social democracy. Conservative output is better defined as economic libetarianism.
    As to Keynes, if you want to understand his position you can read his essay Am I a Liberal
    Mick Taylor is right to conclude in his comments “Yes, we must support freedom, but we must also tackle economic and social inequality. The balance between them is where the problems lie.”
    What we have seen develop in recent decades is an economy based on rent extraction with the executives of public companies and the financial sector in particular reaping enormous rewards while wages of the great majority stagnate. Mick is also right to argue that action to redistribute income and wealth is crucial to allow the exercise of freedom. While an element of that action will be focused on higher taxes on higher incomes the focus has to be structural reform to capture the benefit of rent extraction for the public good. That requires structural reform of the economy.
    Martin Wolf has done a good job of analysing the issues in his latest book “The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism” He reckons a job guarantee is worth a look—he acknowledges that this is not a time for revolution. What is needed, he writes, is avowedly incremental change: shoring up the safety-net, boosting competition, preserving global trade.

  • Tristan Ward 27th Feb '23 - 5:47pm

    @ Martin BG

    I do not agree economic liberalism “want to run the economy in different ways, or at least, I do not agree they are incompatible. Nor is Keynes incompatible with with an economic liberalism that sees properly regulated free trade and properly regulated markets, along with sound money, as very powerful tools that create wealth and freedom.

    (I am in no way anything more than a very amateur economist).

    For example, neoliberals have consistently used Keynsian expansion over recent years after the financial crash to try to inflate economies, and use of interest rates to reduce demand is I believe equally part of Kenysian economics.

    There does seem to be a belief here that, a priori, social liberalism and economic liberalism are inherently incompatible, and I do not understand why this should be so. The way I look at it, proper regulated but essentially free markets and proper regulated trade, together with sound money are an essential tool in the Liberal tool box. It’s is afterall what the EU single market /central bank is built around, and we are all pretty keen on rejoining that aren’t we?

  • Peter Martin,

    If the three sectoral balances sum to zero, then the economy is in balance and there is no economic stimulus. Where there is an economic stimulus the economy is not in balance.

    Joe Bourke,

    With regard to economics the Liberal Democrats should be social liberals, the Labour Party under Keir Starmer is social democratic now (rather than democratic socialists under Corbyn) and the Conservative Party have been economic liberals since the days of Thatcher.

    It is the way monetary policy is delivered in the UK which has led to the growth of economic inequalities ‘and the financial sector in particular reaping enormous rewards while wages of the great majority stagnate’.

    Indeed Mick Taylor is right that the state has to intervene to redistribute income and wealth better and about the problems caused by economic liberalism.

    You know I agree with there being a job guarantee and a hugely improved safety net. I would like to see a safety net which ensures no one has to live below the poverty line (as defined by their circumstances).

  • Peter Martin 28th Feb '23 - 9:02am

    @ Tristan Ward,

    “There does seem to be a belief here that, a priori, social liberalism and economic liberalism are inherently incompatible……….sound money (is) an essential tool in the Liberal tool box.”

    Good point. There is also the question of how money is made to be sound. Mainstream economics uses the concept of the NAIRU which is the Non Accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment which is also related to the Phillips Curve. The idea being that we have to have a certain rate of unemployment to discipline the workforce and so prevent increasing inflation. I would also add an extra U to include Underemployment which has essentially the same economic effect.

    I would expect that a Social Liberal would be more uncomfortable than an Economic Liberal that our macroeconomic policies do rely on the deliberate creation of unemployment and underemployment. This is particularly harsh on disabled workers who have to compete against the able bodied in what could be described as a liberal and free market. So the question arises about possible alternatives.

    @ Michael BG

    I don’t think you have it quite right on the sectoral balances. Please DM me if you would like to discuss.

    https://www.economicshelp.org/blog/glossary/the-difference-between-the-nairu-and-the-natural-rate-nr-of-unemployment/

  • Economic Liberalism has brought hundreds of millions out of poverty in China since that country moved away from the Maoist system of state control of private enterprise. Perhaps the most stark contrast is that seen on the Korean peninsula. At the end of the Korean war, South Korea was among the poorest places on the planet. Today per capita GDP is fast catching up with that of the UK, while North Korea remains mired in destitution for the great majority.
    The UK is among the most centralised of developed economies with tight control of spending from Westminster. What is badly needed is devolution of power and control of finances to the regions and local authorities who are best placed to determine the priorities of local communities, as is the case in many developed economies.
    On the corporate side, Corporate governance is focused almost entirely on the needs of shareholders with scant attention to the needs of other stakeholders. Little progress has been made with worker representation at board level and more active scrutiny of executive remuneration by the large institutional investors like pension and investment funds.
    Tax reform needs to follow the guidelines set out in the 2010 Mirrlees review both to incentivise corporate investment and deliver a more efficient and equitable system of taxation. We additionally need to see integration of the tax and benefits system with a minimum income guarantee at its base.

  • Peter Martin 28th Feb '23 - 1:43pm

    @ Joe Bourke,

    “Economic Liberalism has brought hundreds of millions out of poverty in China……”

    State Capitalism, rather than Economic Liberalism, is probably a better description of the contemporary Chinese economic system. The apparatchiks of the Communist Party have manoeuvred themselves into the role of the ruling class. But leaving this point aside, Karl Marx would agreed with you about the benefits that 19th century Economic Liberalism brought about.

    As he put it:

    “The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. Subjection of Nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam-navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalisation of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground — what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labour?”

    But, and there is always a but……….

  • Tristan Ward,

    A few days ago you spelt Katharine Pindar’s name incorrectly. In this thread you have failed to get my first name correct.

    The use of interest rates to reduce demand is not Keynesian economics it is Monetarism. Social liberalism is about economics. A few people have explained to you why economic liberalism is incompatible with social liberalism. Therefore I think you should stop using the term economic liberalism. Economic liberals believe in a smaller role for government than social liberals, they believe in a very light touch regulation (not properly regulated markets). Who supports unsound money?

    While there was some fiscal stimulus following the financial crash, soon afterwards it was monetary policies which were relied upon which increased economic inequalities. However monetarism is a tool which can be used by social liberals.

    Peter Martin,

    I can’t send you a DM as I have no idea where to send it. The only social media account I have is a Facebook one. If I had your email address I could email you.

    Joe Bourke,

    I am not sure that the Chinese government implements economic liberalism. Also in 2018 40% of the economy was still state run. I think I agree with Peter Martin that it is closer to state capitalism. Russia implement economic liberalism after the fall of Communism and that has caused many problems.

    With regard to South Korea perhaps you are talking about a liberal economy rather than economic liberalism.

  • Peter Martin 1st Mar '23 - 9:10am

    @ Michael BG, @ Tristan

    “The use of interest rates to reduce {should be regulate -PM} demand is not Keynesian economics it is Monetarism”.

    The confusion arises because Monetarism has come to be known as ‘New Keynesianism’ . Should be ‘Not Keynesianism’ IMO! Most modern Keynesians wouldn’t discount the use of some interest rate adjustment but it’s never been the primary method to regulate demand.

    “Social liberalism is about economics.”

    I’d say social liberalism should be about more than this. Socialism certainly is. But I’ll leave you to decide on the former

    Pls use FB messenger if you’d like to DM and I send you my email address.

    .

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